Not unlike many other colonies, Aotearoa or "New Zealand" was a laboratory for European settlers. It was a place where imperial ideas of land value and extraction were closely tied to capitalist notions of productivity and the accumulation of wealth. Where European men scooped up land through naming and claiming, altering the land they saw around them to reflect the way they saw themselves in the world—as conquerors of nature. They dug into Papatūānuku’s guts to replace her histories and erase modalities of kinship by building churches, railway stations, shops, prefabricated houses, factories, and roads. The fallacy of the colonial man’s supremacy over nature is best expressed through this attempt at permanence, an ideology expressed through architecture as well as the draining of lakes or quarry building. Yet when you look at Te Waipounamu on a map, you see a series of ridges, maunga and the jagged lines of rivers and lakes that breathe into each other and exhale out into the ocean. The voice of the whenua still speaks. In Nirun, an exhibition at the University of Otago’s Hocken Gallery by Sorawit Songsataya, we consider these relationships to time, language, and memory as they are reflected within and speak from the whenua. Songsataya is a multimedia artist based between Aotearoa and Thailand. The breadth of their work explores personal narrative, ecology, and ways of reimagining the relationship between the human and non-human. Working through moving image, sculpture, and installation, they employ both digital and more tactile, physical media to reimagine ideas of place and belonging.
Nirun—the Thai word for eternal—is the culmination of Songsataya’s 2022 Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, and consists of a series of sculptures made from Ōamaru stone (limestone) and beeswax, digital prints, two moving image works, and a series of holographic LED animations. The etymology of the word 'eternal' comes from the Greek aiōn: "age, vital force; a period of existence, a lifetime, a generation; a long space of time."(1) This idea of vital force is generative when considering the materiality of many of Songsataya’s works in Nirun, and one which particularly speaks to the whenua of Ōtākou. The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship is one of those rare opportunities where an artist is given not only the resources towards an exhibition, but also the time, space and support to learn new skills, undertake research, and build relationships. Over the course of a year, Songsataya sought ways of working with materials as manuhiri—in their words, as a guest or a visitor—in turn acknowledging their violent extraction from the earth. This led them to seek out ways of engaging in reciprocal relationships with local communities, and to develop knowledge through exchange and conversation with other artists and writers in the region. For the artist, this meant building relationships with those who hold the ahi kā of the Ōtepoti area, the three local rūnaka: Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou, Kāti Huirapa Rūnaka ki Puketeraki, and Te Rūnanga o Moeraki. As manuhiri on the lands of Ngāi Tahu, Waitaha, and Kāti Mamoe people, Songsataya asked for permission not only to use materials extracted from Papatūānuku, like Ōamaru stone, but also to film on sites of historical, cultural, and spiritual significance.
Dispersed around the galleries are the works Amongst the people (2023), a series of Ōamaru limestone sculptures in different sizes, which reference the architectural elements of a stone temple, the Wat Mahathat in the Sukhothai Historical Park in Thailand. An archival photograph by the American scientist Robert Larimore Pendleton (1890-1957), Sukhothai Changwat (Thailand), laterite columns of Wat Mahathat (1936), was digitally printed and presented alongside the sculptures. Intrigued by the texture of the columns found at Wat Mahathat, Songsataya became interested in the material that was used to build this temple, known as laterite. Composed of both rock and soil, laterite’s chemical and mineralogical make-up was formed through an intensive and prolonged process of weathering (laterization) that occurred millions of years ago. Although found mostly in hot and tropical areas, Songsataya found its material properties and primordial formation similar to that of Ōamaru limestone. Utilising the form of Wat Mahathat offered the artist an opportunity to think through this bringing together of material and form, of being between two countries (Aotearoa and Thailand), and how this geo-spatial combination constructs their own relation to place.
Each sculpture in Amongst the people appears like a plinth or wash bowl and is filled with a water-like resin made from beeswax, and contains myriad small objects that may be read as votive offerings: seashells, mandarin peels, kōwhai petals, synthetic nails, tī kouka seeds and balm. Here, the detritus of the artist’s personal history makes contact with the geological history inscribed within the limestone, and includes kōwhai petals from outside the studio Songsataya inhabited for the duration of fellowship, and mussel shells collected last Raumati during a journey back to Te Ika-a-Māui. The use of tī kouka recalls the resistance of these trees, and the ancient geological forms of their surroundings, to the land clearances across the Otago area. The exhibition spaces are filled with the sweet smell of the residue of beeswax emanating from these works. I think of the multitudes of lifeforms that bees support as they transfer pollen between flowering plants, growing and maintaining a fragile ecosystem that in turn supports all other living beings. Across the world, beeswax has been used for thousands of years for its preservation properties, from sealing the tombs of ancient Egypt, to a forgotten lump found in a 6,500-year-old human jawbone. The process by which the artist bound the beeswax to the stone took around two months, a delicate dance of heating and drying to tether together these disparate materials.
Further foregrounding aspects of care and preservation, Songastaya sought to recycle discarded materials, using offcuts of Ōamaru stone which were carved using a high-pressure waterjet, then meticulously sanded by hand and carefully dried to form each sculpture. Ōamaru limestone is soft and porous: it is composed primarily of calcium carbonate, a chemical compound found in human bones as well as in organisms such as arthropods and molluscs. Ōamaru stone contains the remnants of primaeval oceans, where moss-like animals known as Foraminifera (single-celled marine organisms similar to coral) lived in colonies housed in shells made from calcium carbonate.(2) Around 36 million years ago, Foraminifera broke down into sand and formed limestone.(3) Thinking about Ōamaru stone, I couldn’t help but reflect upon these earliest forms of life—microscopic organisms that lived in colonies on rocks 3.7 billion years ago. For Songsataya, Amongst the people recasts the assumption that this stone is just a building material rather than a sentient being that, like bees, supports multitudes of life. After having lived and worked with these sculptures for many months over the duration of the fellowship, the artist has said that they felt their absence.
In a conversation with curator May Adadol Ingawanij and artist and filmmaker Riar Rizaldi published alongside Nirun, Songsataya reflects on an earlier video work, Comfort Zone (2021), which was shown as part of the 6th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art in Russia in 2021, and also in the group show, Wild Once More, curated by Christopher Ulutupu at Silo 6 (Te Tuhi) in 2022. They remark that, "There are recent studies that reveal biological clocks in some marine organisms, such as corals and oysters, that respond to the lunar cycles."(4) The artist then goes on to discuss the ways in which Māori and many other Indigenous cultures have utilised the maramataka as a navigation tool for journeys across the sea, for cultivating crops and plants, and many other customary practices. Reading this conversation, I started to think about the ways in which Nirun offered a recurrent dialogue between the microscopic and the cosmic, and considered the relationship that exists between the human and non-human over time and space. Across the exhibition, there is a sense of deep time that is encoded geologically with an energy or power that forms a constant cycle and circular flow. Meaning that even if something like a piece of schist or limestone appears 'dead', it can’t be, because it supports life. These rocks exist instead in deep time, a timescale of geologic events that is vast and almost impossible to describe or contemplate in relation to Gregorian understandings of time. Across Otago, these beings have existed sometimes for billions of years and are witnesses not only to human histories, but to deeper and more complex cosmologies that are difficult for us to comprehend within our lifetime. Where we can only briefly envision the knowledge, mana, and sentience ingrained in each rock through microscopic analysis, its memory is, as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin has noted, not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. We get a sense of this past, but never the full picture. For Māori, time is unified and nonlinear; past, present and future are one. This can be surmised in the whakataukī—I ngā wā o mua (time is at the front). Perhaps this is a way to understand ideas of deep time that decentre the limits of human experience.
In their research, Songastaya searched for specific Māori histories of the land from which the limestone was quarried, wondering if that place had ever been a papakaika or mahika kai, but instead learnt that it had been a place of hīkoi, of transition, where people passed through. Utilising information found via the Kā Huru Manu (Kāi Tahu Mapping Project/Atlas), they mapped out specific routes through the landscape that were then filmed using a drone. The footage captures the shift from an abundance of limestone at the coast to glittering quartz schist, as the camera progresses further into the Otago interior. Central Ōtakou is the driest and most inland region in Aotearoa and is sculpted in schist. Millions of years ago when the land beneath us rumbled, tectonic shifts lifted the schist to the surface, creating the vast mountain ranges we now see in central Otago. Used primarily as a building material, schist is a metamorphic rock formed by mudstone. Like the infamous goldfields, the area is known for the way schist glitters in the light, the shine that emanates from its mixing of quartz and other minerals with sand and sediment. In the video work Shoulders of Giants (2023), Songsataya captures the pure sensory overload and mana of this landscape. For me, the work also alludes to two pūrākau from my childhood that define the spiritual and cultural histories of this place; I think of the Giant of Wakatipu and of the taniwha Kopūwai, the fragments of whose body create the jagged rocks found in places like Alexandra. I also recognise the very specific light of the Māniatoto plains—in one translation, the plains of blood—which refers to the Poa maniototo, a hardy tussock endemic to the area that paints the hills in a crimson red hue. Also dispersed throughout these shots are clusters of wild gorse, an introduced species that is able to survive in even the harshest of climates. Introduced by Scottish settlers, perhaps this plant was a way of holding home close.
When we follow the contours of this land, along the trails and lakes dug into the land by the Waitaha rangatira Rākaihautū, using his famous kō, we start to notice how it speaks. For instance, the maunga Makotukutuku (Cape Wanbrow), Te Ruatūpāpaku (Mount Royal), and Ohikaroroa (Hikaroroa) are all tīpuna of the Ārai-te-uru waka, which capsized off Matakaea (Shag Point) and whose jagged edges make up that shoreline.(5) Shoulders of Giants brings these histories to life, as well as many of the memories I have of growing up on this whenua. In one scene, this whenua slowly morphs into a minecraft-like world using what looks like geospatial technology. In another, the rocky edges of maunga are rendered as 3D animations of stones gently falling and creating a wall of rocks. We see the sponge-like limestone in Takiroa, a culturally significant site for Ngāi Tahu people in Waitaki, one of the many places around the motu that bear records of rock art. Takiroa is close to Maerewhenua (Elephant rocks), previously a river that was connected to the Waitaki river. Around 25 million years ago, this whole area was underwater and home to numerous animal and plant species. Over time, shell fragments from these creatures formed the limestone that marks out its unique presence in this land, uplifted from the seafloor by tectonic shifts and brought to view over time by changes in the sea level and forces of erosion.(6) Again, Songsataya reminds us that our lives are but a blip in time, but that we are also deeply connected to this limestone through our bodies: like stone, we are made from bones and water.
For Nirun, Songsataya was especially interested in learning about the different hīkoi undertaken by Māori for millennia through these lands, before many of their tracks were turned into roads. Many Māori travelled inland during the Raumati months to engage in wānaka and to go to areas they used as mahinga kai for gathering food and other resources, such as the Tikumu (mountain daisy), which was used for weaving. Tracing the steps of these many hīkoi, I think of the Waitaha tōhunga, Hipa Te Maiharoa, a Māori prophet from the late 19th century who was said to perform a number of miracles and had a huge following among Māori. One of a number of spiritual leaders to emerge around the 1870s, Te Maiharoa is important for his role in the period’s great conflict over land. In 1848, as much as eight million hectares of land in Te Waipounamu was purportedly sold to the crown for £2,000.(7) This is estimated to be just £305,000 in today’s currency.(8) Te Maiharoa led a contingent of his people in the fight against the injustice of this deal by occupying land they believed had not been sold, taking them on a hīkoi from Arowhenua on the Canterbury coast to the upper Waitaki, a promised land.(9)
In his book A Lover’s Discourse (1977), the French writer Roland Barthes describes language as a skin. What happens, then, when geographical and psychological distance from your language means you start to forget, as if forgetting your own skin? The orange peels in Amongst the people create a layering of this idea, of peeling back as a working through of spatial and temporal distance. Included in Shoulders of Giants is a series of watercolours that explore language, in which the artist renders the vowels of the Thai alphabet using digital writing. While making this work, Songsataya realised they couldn’t remember all 32 vowels—and was shocked to think that through exchanging and learning new histories about one place (Aotearoa), some of their memories of Thailand could feel as though they were being lost or displaced. But there are other ways of communicating and respecting kinship, and even in the act of not remembering, there is a reciprocity and care shown to the whenua and its histories.
For Māori, the principle of ahi kā—the burning fires of occupying a certain rohe (region) as a way of being kaitiaki–guardian of a specific place—is a way of thinking about how and why we belong to a place, the reasons for which we keep the homefires burning. For Songsataya, their experience of belonging and of home is one of increasing cultural dissonance.(10) In a kōrero with the artist earlier this month, we discussed how, in making work for Nirun, they began to feel as though they were getting further and further away from Thailand. In the video Unnamed Islands (2023), we see a number of marine animals, such as fish and squid, move in and out of focus. They appear to be in water, but also as in some other place where bits of marine snow, debris, dust, or microorganisms float in space. The scene is reminiscent of shots of the deepest depths of the ocean, a part of the world that we still don’t know much about. The sounds of the Khim, a traditional Thai strings instrument, structure this work, which intersperses these images of unknown depths with those of the Kōtuku, or white heron, on its nesting site near Whataroa on the West Coast. The Kōtuku, much like the artist, has a home in more than one place, as their breeding cycles take them across the South Pacific, Australia, and parts of Asia. At one point, an image emerges of what looks like the beginning of a kahu huruhuru, or a kākahu (cloak) that is adorned with feathers of manu (birds); it could also be a muka hanging.
The feathers, plants, bush, and microscopic sea organisms that form Ōamaru limestone are presented in this work as 3D animations of scanned Foraminifera shells. Here, the vastness of the ocean is overlaid with photomicrographs of digital fossils—deep time is set alongside the structures that support life. In Unnamed Islands, the migration of Kōtuku across vast oceans sits beside these other cycles of life and time that exist next to our own, such as birth and nesting. The work contains a sense of the ways in which we live in multiple realities that are both digital and physical, and uses animation, handheld camerawork, and dreamy, crisp HD footage to form a synchronicity that echoes the way memories play out in our mind. Alongside the sound of water and cicadas, the melancholic plucking of the Khim gently motions towards the creation of distance between the artist and their Thai heritage, this sense of a peeling back.
Across the works in Nirun, Sorawit Songsataya has created a visual vocabulary that evokes Indigenous ontologies of language that highlight the indivisibility of land and people. In its exploration of Ōamaru stone, the artworks communicate deep ideas of place, connection, memory, and the wairua of the land and all its living beings, even those that may appear as dead white stone on the outside of a bank. It’s as the Potawatomi writer and scientist, Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), "We may not have wings or leaves, but we humans do have words. Language is our gift and our responsibility. I’ve come to think of writing as an act of reciprocity with the living land."(11)
Nirun, an exhibition of work by Sorawit Songsataya, runs at the Hocken Gallery Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Otākou until 15 July 2023.
Hana Pera Aoake (Ngaati Mahuta, Ngaati Hinerangi, Tainui/Waikato, Tauranga Moana, Poutini Kai Tahu) is an artist, writer, and Miriama Jean’s mum. From Aotearoa, they co-organise Kei te pai press with Morgan Godfery, and are the curator for the Sir James Fletcher Kawerau Museum.